Minor league camp started this week for the Pittsburgh Pirates. We’re still a little less than two weeks away from actual games being played, and not everyone has reported to camp yet, with the final reporting days coming in the next week or two. But seeing the minor leaguers back in action is a good thing, especially since there is nothing to write about at all in Major League camp. To give a preview of what to expect this Spring, here is a list of five of the biggest topics I’ll be watching for as camp continues at Pirate City.
1. Who are the breakout candidates?
This is the big question every year. It’s also a topic where I can never really force an answer. The process is as simple as going out and watching the minor league players each day. I’m not looking for who the breakout player might be. I usually find my breakout players by “appointment viewing,” which means after a week or two of watching that player, I’ll seek out his schedule and see when he might be taking batting practice or throwing a bullpen. Or I’ll see him in a game, and won’t take a second thought about stopping to watch him.
The last few years it has been difficult to come up with real “sleepers” since the Pirates have many tiers of sleepers. For example, Austin Meadows is a well-known prospect, and makes a lot of top 100 prospect lists. But I could see him having a breakout year that would make him one of the top prospects in the game. Meanwhile, there might be other players who have breakout seasons that just put them on the map as top prospects. In either case, this is going to be one thing I’ll be focusing on, just because that goes with the territory of seeing who is improving and who is declining.
2. Austin Meadows and the Lower Level Outfielders
Speaking of Austin Meadows, I wrote during the pre-season that he could shape the lower level outfields, depending on whether he goes to Bradenton or West Virginia. When I talked to Larry Broadway this week, he said Meadows has a chance to go to Bradenton at some point this year. However, right now nothing is set on where he will start off.
Currently, Bradenton has Barrett Barnes, Raul Fortunato, Taylor Lewis, Justin Maffei, Jeff Roy, and Wes Freeman battling for outfield spots. Barnes is the only sure bet to make the team. West Virginia has Jordan Luplow, Harold Ramirez, Kevin Krause, Jerrick Suiter, Michael Suchy, Elvis Escobar, and Carl Anderson as outfield options. Luplow and Ramirez are locks for the spot. Krause will likely get time behind the plate in addition to right field. Suiter, Suchy, and Escobar aren’t top prospects, but are interesting enough that you’d want to give them a shot.
The Pirates could get creative here by giving Luplow an aggressive push, or by promoting Ramirez over Meadows, since both players are in similar situations. They could also send Krause up to be a full-time right fielder, although he has been getting work with the catchers, so I don’t see this happening at the moment. Sending Meadows to Bradenton would make things a lot easier, although even if that happens, the Pirates will have a lot of interesting outfielders splitting time at West Virginia. If Meadows stays in West Virginia to start the year, then you’ve got a lot of guys who won’t be playing at all.
3. Reese McGuire and the Lower Level Catchers
Just like the situation with Meadows, there is a catcher log jam in the lower levels. The Pirates had this last year, and solved it by giving Jin-De Jhang an aggressive promotion to Bradenton, and moving Wyatt Mathisen to third base. Jhang didn’t handle the promotion well, making it unlikely that he moves up to Altoona. The Pirates drafted Taylor Gushue and Kevin Krause in the top ten rounds last year, and both will likely get time in West Virginia. Connor Joe was said to get time at catcher, although he’s only going to be working in the infield at first and third right now.
Reese McGuire complicates things. He’s the top catching prospect, which means no matter where he goes, he will be getting the bulk of the playing time. He didn’t have the best offensive numbers last year, making it possible that he will return to West Virginia. However, that scenario creates some problems.
The fact that Joe is out of the picture makes it a little easier to shuffle the lower level catchers. Jhang will go to Bradenton, and Gushue will go to West Virginia due to his age. That means if you send McGuire to West Virginia, then Krause would go to Bradenton (which also helps the outfield situation in West Virginia). But McGuire in West Virginia means that Gushue would get no playing time, which would be unfortunate, because he looks like a very intriguing catching prospect, and possibly the second best of the group.
Sending McGuire to Bradenton makes all the sense in the world. It would cut into Jhang’s playing time behind the plate, but that’s a better alternative to cutting down Gushue’s playing time.
4. The Future at First Base
Josh Bell made the switch to first base this off-season, and instantly becomes the best first base prospect in the system, and the first baseman of the future. While the Pirates are looking forward to Bell at first, there are other guys who could step up with good performances. They just need to fix certain parts of their game. Stetson Allie has some of the best power in the system, but needs to cut down on the strikeouts in order to have a shot at the majors. Jose Osuna has good potential at the plate, but might find it difficult to get playing time at first, since he projects to be at the same level as Bell. Edwin Espinal should make the jump to Bradenton, and has a ton of raw power, but that hasn’t fully translated to the plate. Connor Joe should get time at first base, and will get his first opportunity to show off the bat that the Pirates loved so much in the draft last year.
Bell is the top option, and so far he’s looking good. But it will be interesting to see who else might step up to give the Pirates additional options.
5. Fallout From the Major League Cuts
In a typical year, the MLB roster cuts would impact who might play in Triple-A, and will bump some guys down to Altoona. I profiled the rosters for Indianapolis and Altoona, noting that there shouldn’t be many surprises. That’s because there aren’t many surprises projected out of Major League camp, which allows us to project the minor league rosters fairly accurately.
That’s not to say there will be no surprises. For example, I don’t expect Pedro Florimon to make the active roster, but I also don’t expect him to clear waivers. If he does, then that would cause the Pirates to shuffle the infield spots at the top two levels. If Andrew Lambo doesn’t make the club, it might impact first base and the outfield. And the pitching staff with Indianapolis could be impacted by which NRI pitcher does the best, especially since Brandon Cumpton’s injury will likely leave a spot open in the rotation.
**We have about 100 paperback books of the 2015 Prospect Guide remaining from the most recent shipment. We’ve already sold more than last year’s total, and I don’t anticipate ordering another shipment this year. That means once the current batch is gone, the hard copy version will be sold out. You can order your copy of the book on the products page of the site.
**Every day I upload content on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and the video features on YouTube. Be sure that you’re subscribed to all of those sites to follow everything we upload throughout Spring Training (there is different content for each social media site).
**Q&A: Will Jung-Ho Kang’s Presence Create Issues In The Pirates Dugout? The short answer, no.
**Glasnow Dominates Upper Level Hitters In Spring Debut; Morton Shows Some Rust. A link from yesterday, looking at Tyler Glasnow’s impressive Spring Training debut.
**Austin Meadows Lowered His Hand Position To Add More Power. Video feature from yesterday, looking at the adjustments Meadows is making to get more power.
**Willy Garcia Has Some Of The Best Power In The System, But One Thing Holds Him Back. Today’s video feature looks at a guy who had power, but needs an adjustment to allow that power to play in the majors.
**See How Josh Bell Is Doing In His Move To First Base. A short clip of his defense at the position.
**Talking Pirates Minor League Spring Training With David Todd And Ken Laird. Podcasts from two radio interviews I did recently.